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35 years of Arjun: How an article about the gang wars of the 1980s inspired the film's plot

Filmmaker Rahul Rawail recounts some interesting anecdotes from the making of the Sunny Deol-starrer on the anniversary of its release.

Keyur Seta

Rahul Rawail’s Arjun (1985) played a big part in turning Sunny Deol into a specialist in the theme of the lone hero battling injustice. The film started a sequence for Deol that continued until recently.

As Arjun completes 35 years (the film was released on 10 May 1985), filmmaker Rawail said looking back at it today makes him happy. “It is a very important film," he said. "It established a trend and became a cult film."

Rawail, who had also directed Deol's debut vehicle Betaab (1983), said he was happy with how the actor's career has shaped up. “I have seen his growth," he said. "I did four [other] films with him [Betaab, Yodha (1991), Arjun Pandit (1999) and Jo Bole So Nihaal (2005)]. He has really grown as an actor.”

Deol was already on board for Ajun when they found the story that eventually became the film's plot. Rawail revealed that the film was earlier supposed to be a two-hero project with Kumar Gaurav and, later, Rishi Kapoor being considered alongside Deol. However, both he and writer Javed Akhtar felt the story wasn’t working out. 

The idea that eventually became Arjun was thought up by Akhtar when they were in Lonavala. Akhtar woke Rawail up at 4am with a plot inspired by the real-life gangsters who ruled Mumbai in the 1980s.

“At that time we didn’t know much about the Pathan gang [led by Karim Lala] and the Dawood gang [led by Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar]," Rawail said. "But we had heard about them. There was an article in the Sunday supplement of The Times of India [newspaper] written by a journalist from the Inquilab newspaper. When Javed saheb read that article he got the inspiration to write this story.”

The director explained that most of these gangsters were the creations of circumstances and manipulation. “There was a lot of manipulation by the politicians," he said. "That was the era of the educated unemployed. These so-called gangsters got power only because of the politicians backing them. That is what we wanted [to show in the film].”

Sunny Deol in Arjun

Arjun revolves around Arjun Malwankar (Sunny Deol). He is an educated youngster who is unable to land a job because there are simply not enough opportunities in Mumbai. Arjun is also troubled by the rampant corruption and injustice by politicians that he sees around him and finds solace in the company of younger sister Sudha (Supriya Pathak) and girlfriend Geeta Sahani (Dimple Kapadia).

When Arjun tries to be a good Samaritan once, it only gets him into trouble. Shivkumar Chowgule (Anupam Kher), a politician, comes to his rescue and offers him employment and support. Chowgule, who portrays himself as a politician out to cleanse the system, gives Arjun the task of finding proof against the evil politician Deendayal Trivedi (Prem Chopra). Arjun does that and gets a new lease of life, only to discover one day that Chowgule and Trivedi have joined hands.

Now Arjun is alone in the battle against the corrupt. His only support is his close friend, police inspector Ravi Rane (Raj Kiran).

The song ‘Mamaiya Kero Kero Kero Mama’ from the film is popular even today. Producers Karim Morani and Sunil Soorma were so impressed with the number that they desperately wanted it placed in the film. “The song was made for the story we were making earlier," explained Rawail. "It was even recorded. [Then] the producers said that whichever story you select, it has to have this song! It was Pancham [music director RD Burman] at his best.”

Asked whether he personally liked the song, the filmmaker said, “I was also personally very keen on having it, but I said we have to find the right situation.”

Arjun is also remembered for the character of Anup Lal, the matka king. Paresh Rawal’s fine act stands out despite the presence of a number of other good artistes. “We weren’t getting any actor to play this character,” recalled Rawail. “We didn’t know whom to cast and the shooting had begun. My producer Karim Morani called Paresh [a newcomer then] because he had seen his play. This is how he came on board.”

A funny incident happened when the film was released and the reviews came out. The review by well-known critic Khalid Mohamed, then with The Times of India, praised the moment in which a rat slips through when Deol’s character is cornered by Kher’s henchmen in an alley. Khalid Mohamed wrote that the rat gave Arjun an idea how to escape the corner he is in. "But I never saw this rat [while shooting],” laughed Rawail.

Following the review, Rawail went to a theatre to watch Arjun just to see the rat. “Some people asked about it after reading Khalid’s review," he said, laughing heartily. "So I felt I should take advantage of it. I said it took us so much time to arrange for a rat and that he was a rat, so he couldn't be trained!”